Once upon a time, Roxanne and John Diesel were just a couple of normal theater fanatics who had worked in community and youth theater for years. Then, one day in 1995, they decided to create something that was family-oriented. And so began Fairy Tales in the Park, a series of free performances of plays based on fairy tales for families. Soon, fairy tale plays were performed all across Ventura County, and they were all well-attended by families. Everyone lived happily ever after. The end.

Well, not quite.

Twelve years later, the series is still going strong. This year, the group is back with five productions from now through September.

“We started it because we love acting and kids,” Roxanne says. “And now that we’re 13 years older, we sometimes wonder if it’s getting too hard. But we always come back. It’s not the money, and it’s not the fame. It’s seeing the kids light up. It’s a big kick to be able to do it.”

Moral to the story

Like most things in life, Fairy Tales in the Park has no clear end or beginning. As soon as one season draws to a close, planning begins for the next year. And the group’s first beginning evolved organically from many other starts and goals and dreams. Roxanne Diesel had a background in theater before founding the group.

“I was in my first play in second grade,” she says. “It was a Christmas play, and I was a jingle bell.”

Roxanne now works as a youth theater director. During the summer, she runs drama, performance, improvisation and other camps for kids in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. She likes working with kids because she loves watching someone transform from a quiet child into a performer. “Sometimes a kid will come in shy and in a shell. By the end, they’re a totally different kid. They blossom. Something in the class sparked an interest for them, and they’ve overcome their insecurities.”

Now, with Fairy Tales in the Park, Diesel’s work with kids has come full circle. For this year’s production of Peter Pan, several of her students, who have grown into teenagers, will be acting in the play. “They’ve come into their own as actors,” Roxanne says of her students-turned-thespians.

For the first Fairy Tales in the Park production in 1995, Roxanne and her husband had the simple vision of creating a play that would give children an introduction to live theater in a casual setting. They decided to perform Beauty and the Beast at the Rancho Simi Community Park Amphitheater. According to Roxanne, they weren’t sure what to expect from that first show. The person who gave them permission to use the amphitheater was somewhat discouraging.

“He said, ‘You can use the space, but we don’t get much of a turn out for things there,’” Roxanne recalls. But his pessimistic calculations were way off: For their first performance, 200 people showed up.

Since that first show, some things have remained the same — the plays are still free, partially subsidized by the Diesels’ other theater venture, Gypsies in a Trunk Productions dinner theater — but now, the park and recreation departments from the various cities also help fund the productions. The plays are now performed in several different cities, including Ventura, Westlake Village, Camarillo and Oxnard, and the number of performances has increased since the first year.

Despite the changes, Fairy Tales in the Park’s goal remains the same: to create entertaining theater.

“It’s very easy to bring the family and have a good time,” Roxanne says.

Witches, cowboys, Peter Pan — Oh my!

While the idea of putting on to a kid-friendly outdoor play is enough to entice parents to bring their kids to the shows, it is the performances themselves that truly impress the kids.

According to Roxanne, the scripts for the performances are all written by members of the Fairy Tales in the Park group specifically for their productions. The plays stick to the traditional “storybook” versions of the fairy tales, not the Disney variations. And each performance has an interactive element to it.

“We involve the kids in each production,” Roxanne says.

This year’s plays include many original takes on the fairy tale theme, including the story of a missing Mother Goose (a spoof of the CSI TV shows) and Switch Witch, a play that reinterprets the witches from Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel as good witches caught in mix-ups. The season starts with a novel take on Peter Pan.

Peter Pan director Gabriel Vega took a different approach when creating the play. He developed the performance from an “improv approach,” starting with no script. “I started with a concept that I had and a detailed outline. Then [the actors and I] created the flesh and blood [for the play] during rehearsals,” Vega says.

The result is a new take on Peter Pan that has the play performed by three cowboys. When the three cowpokes realize the actors who are supposed to perform the play are not showing, they decide to perform it themselves. The result is “wild and silly theater,” according to Vega, which includes many comic moments. In one scene, a large and crusty reformed criminal ends up playing Tinkerbell. As he pulls on his tutu, one of the other characters quips that the ballet frock “looks like a four-four.”

Vega, who has been an actor and writer with Fairy Tales in the Park since 2004, says everything Fairy Tales in the Park does (including his version of Peter Pan) goes back to the group’s theme: young at heart. Vega says the song with the same title acts as a sort of theme song for the group. “By staying young at heart, you’ll live a happier life. Everything is so electronic. Live theater is ever at risk of being marginalized. By bringing [live theater] before kids and parents, [hopefully] it will spark something that they’ll carry on.”

So, what’s the moral of the story? According to Vega, it only takes listening to “Young at Heart” to remember. “Fairy tales will come true/This can happen to you/If you are among the very young at heart.” And seeing a Fairy Tales in the Park performance, it’s not hard to remember what it feels like to be young.